Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja
Platform: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Ninja Studio
Genre: Action RPG
Format: Cartridge
Released: US 02/20/07
Japan 06/08/06
Official Website: English Site

Graphics: 81%
Sound: 60%
Gameplay: 70%
Control: 85%
Story: 88%
Overall: 69%
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Oh yeah? Well, holy hen, you die way too much.
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Yeah, like the rest of us did at your age. Before then we were just robots in disguise.
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Sorry pal, I don't swing that way.
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I'd want to blow my brains out too, if I starred in a game this crappy.
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Ashton Liu
Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja
Ashton Liu

Atlus has always been about the niche gamer. Their releases have traditionally been aimed at the most hardcore game players, and their latest DS release, Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja, is no exception. With a subtitle like that, it can be safely assumed that the game won't take itself too seriously. But Izuna brings more to the table than an off-the-wall title; it brings a series of problems that will remind the hardcore of times past and why those problems are better off staying away from games today.

Izuna begins with a ninja family of four arriving at a village smack dab in the middle of nowhere. As it turns out, this particular band of ninjas was given the pink slip and shown the door to the wonderful life of unemployment by their former lord, and thus are looking for a new place to settle down. Just as they start getting used to the surroundings, however, Grandboss, the leader of the troupe, wanders off by himself and Izuna ends up being the unwitting volunteer to search for him before he does any damage. Of course, she messes up and how; in the process of attempting to pilfer a crystal from the village grounds, Izuna accidentally angers the Gods that protect the village, causing them to curse the entire hamlet. Now Grandboss thinks Izuna's a kidnapper and Izuna's two cohorts have started, as she puts it, "acting weird." In fact, the entire village, save Izuna, seems to have suffered a collective personality crisis. What's a rambunctious, self absorbed ninja girl to do? Why, take the fight to the Gods themselves, of course!

Being an Atlus game, Izuna has an excellent localization. The often hilarious dialogue has great writing, especially the lines of leading girl Izuna, whose self-centered and narcissistic personality makes for interesting combinations when she starts clashing with the supernatural beings in the game. It's too bad, then, that there is so little of it, because the way Izuna is designed, there is very little room for an abundance of story or dialogue. Those humorous exchanges are only seen once every few hours after a cleared dungeon, and are rather short to boot. Considering the story and characters were the best part of the game, it's a real shame there wasn't more time devoted to their development.

Izuna's visuals are unimpressive at best and downright dated at worst. The graphics are entirely sprite based and are rather poorly detailed outside of the character profiles that pop up only when there's dialogue. The sound, though sporting some voice clips here and there, is also equally unimpressive, with the music being forgettable and rather tinny. Further disappointment is present in the fact that Izuna takes advantage of none of the DS's capabilities. The touch screen is never used in anything throughout the game. With a few modifications, this could've easily been a Game Boy Advance game. All of this is just the icing, however, on Izuna's very large cake: the gameplay.

Does sheer frustration and unending annoyance make you want to keep playing a game? Does a criminally unfair difficulty level make you jump for joy? Do you have an immortal amount of patience? If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you might be able to get far enough into Izuna to truly enjoy its gameplay. Izuna is, at its core, a dungeon crawler. Each dungeon has a number of randomized floors with myriad equipment and items strewn about. The player has to navigate each of these floors with only the items he or she can find while looking for the stairs down to the next level. Combat is rather straightforward, as well: the player has Izuna face a direction and press A to attack. Izuna also has a large amount of different items available to her, such as shuriken, throwing knives, ninja scrolls, and the like, but most of the fighting is done by jabbing the A button until the enemy dies. Ninja scrolls serve a dual role in Izuna: in battle they expend SP to cast spells, and out of battle they can be used to customize equipment. Each piece of equipment has an SP value (not to be confused with the SP used for spell casting) for sticking on scrolls. Exceeding this SP value causes equipment to damage and break more easily, so the player has to carefully consider what effects he or she desires on any particular piece of equipment.

Unfortunately, Izuna's battle and customization systems lack any sort of depth. Combat is too straightforward due to a severe lack of variety in Izuna's equippable weapons and armor, ninja scrolls being too costly to serve any practical use, and that the equipment modifications the player makes can easily be lost, either through certain enemy attacks or through Izuna's inevitable deaths.

What causes an unbelievable amount of suffering in the game is the unforgiving difficulty curve coupled with the penalty the player incurs when death befalls Izuna. Enemies have no qualms about mobbing the poor girl without mercy or hesitation, and can cause swift death to any unprepared player. In fact, even a well equipped and prepared player will die countless times over the course of the game. And to add insult and injury, whenever Izuna dies she is jettisoned out of the dungeon and stripped of ALL her items and money. This is especially harrowing when it happens at the end of an hour long session in the 30th floor of a dungeon. Of course, all of this is assuming the player has not found the ninja scroll that allows instant escape from any dungeon, but said scroll is so rare it's pretty much a moot point anyway. Early on, a storehouse becomes available for the player to deposit money and items so that they won't be lost, but then it's a question of whether a really powerful item that sits in storage for the whole game is actually useful or not.

Death would presumably be avoidable if the player was careful, but the developers took the liberty of taking that into account and snuffing out that ray of hope too. Throughout the dungeons lie hidden traps that are completely undetectable to the player. Often I found myself barely surviving an arduous battle against a horde of monsters only to step on a demon trap that summons a pack of beasts directly afterwards, or stepping on an abacus that slams me into a wall, relieving me of half my HP while a large group of enemies out for ninja blood rounded the corner.

One would think that with such an unforgiving difficulty level, the developers would have been kind enough to allow the player to save anywhere, but unfortunately that fervent hope is also denied to us. The game only allows players to save at the inn in town and between levels in dungeons. Outside of that, the game autosaves every time Izuna enters or exits a dungeon, faces a boss, or dies, and resetting during any time without actually saving is considered a game over, with Izuna suffering the same effects as if she had died. Considering this is a portable game, the lack of a quicksave feature or anything of the sort is a rather daunting flaw.

Even worse is the game's length; despite the crippling difficulty, I was able to finish inside of 15 hours. Considering that much of Izuna's game time is spent grinding and visiting the same dungeons over and over again, it makes me question exactly what I paid for in the game. After the main game, however, an eighth dungeon that resets all of Izuna's stats to level 1 and strips her equipment becomes available for those players that are complete masochists, though I sincerely doubt anyone has the inhuman amount of patience needed to endure it.

In the end, Izuna is nothing more than a short and simple game that provides a thoroughly unsatisfying experience. While the localization is excellent, not only is there not enough of it, what's already there is lost in the torrent of monstrous difficulty, subpar aesthetics, and an overly simplified game system. If this game is any indication, it's no wonder why ninjas are, as the game states, "sooo yesterday."


© 2006 Atlus. All Rights Reserved.

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